Contact InformationE-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Growing up in the D.C. suburbs, I acquired an intense fascination with “inside-the-Beltway” politics and policy-making. As an undergraduate at New York University, I fell in love with cities—living in them, but also trying to make sense of their fantastic complexities. During a semester studying globalization in Chile, I came to appreciate the enormous reach—cultural, economic, and political—of the United States across the world. Thanks to my undergraduate involvement with NYU's program in Public History, I decided to enter the academy on the theory that it could be a great perch from which to engage my curiosity about how the world works and to contribute a contextually-grounded perspective to discussions about the U.S.’s place in the world and the world of places within the U.S. Living in Los Angeles has been a remarkable experience (at least once I got over two years of longing for New York). My sense of what defines a city has changed for good. And through my experiences in the city, as well as through my studies, I have enormously expanded my understanding of what politics means. My dissertation explores mid-20th century progressives’ challenging relationship with the Democratic Party (and the party system, more generally,) as both an avenue and an obstacle to achieving the kind of society they desired. I am committed to a wide variety of civic engagement and public scholarship practices, from public writing and speaking to the inclusion of ordinary voices through oral histories to partnerships across the university-community line. I am a co-coordinator of the LA History and Metro Studies Group, which sponsors presentations, seminars and panels once a month at the Huntington Library.
- B.A. History, New York University, 2005
- M.A. History, University of Southern California, 2008
Summary Statement of Research Interests
- My dissertation offers a new interpretation of the tangled history of American progressivism and liberalism through a study of a series of crucial yet overlooked organizations that worked during the 1930s and 1940s to create a left-leaning electoral and lobbying infrastructure. The stories of groups such as the Progressive National Committee, the National Citizens Political Action Committee, and the Hollywood Democratic Committee constitute a key phase in the longer history of liberals experimenting with strategies for building power within the American political system. The tensions within these groups epitomized the confused positioning of progressives in relation to the American political system, and to the Democratic Party, in particular, as the primary vehicle for their ambitions. Internal debates over which approaches, tactics, and organizational structures were most effective occurred regularly and yet broke along unpredictable lines—not merely between Communists and non-Communists, or between “liberals” and the “left.” While the divide over Communism and anti-Communism did fissure “Popular Front”-era liberalism by the late 1940s, the groups’ challenges were not reducible to Cold War fractures, social group divisions, or putative ideological differences between more centrist “liberals” and more left-wing “progressives.” In fact, this dissertation argues, contrary to much historiography, that there was almost no distinction between “liberals” and “progressives” until the early years of the Cold War, when a clear demarcation emerged. By the early 1930s, “liberal” and “progressive” had become nearly synonymous labels, defined by support for economic regulation, social welfare measures, and workers’ rights. Both were proudly claimed by the political descendants of the egalitarian, social democratic strain of early 20th century progressivism represented by activists such as Jane Addams. The lack of coherent and autonomous vehicle for advancing their own vision, and not self-inflicted liberal retreat from more truly progressive, radical, or left-wing principles, the dissertation contends, is one of the best explanations for the paradoxical strength and weakness of mid-20th century American liberals. Liberalism was a “fragile giant” which bore the marks of its breach birth into American politics. Liberal ideas emerged prior to the formation of a political home for their ambitions. The country’s messy patchwork of local partisan and factional alignments limited liberals’ ability to create an overarching, national political vehicle. They were overly dependent on the popularity and unifying power of President Franklin Roosevelt, a singular figure who consistently undermined rather than encouraged the development of a durable power center on his left flank. And liberals’ own aversion to partisan politics and their wider beliefs about how to achieve social and political progress—both inherited from their Progressive-era predecessors—undermined their quest for power. The implicit “theories of change” embedded in their ideologies—the cultural frames that guided and structured their decision-making processes—owed a great debt to more widespread, yet deeply problematic tropes in mainstream and left-wing American political culture. For instance, a “people versus the interests” model of political process passed down from early 20th century progressives to those who struggled against the Cold War itself. The decision to break away from the Democratic Party and form the Progressive Party in 1948 owed a great deal to the logic valorizing “the American people” as an essentially virtuous and wise group who would vote and act in progressive ways if only they had the right vehicle and heard the right message, free from the shackles of the two major parties. As these grassroots liberals searched for power, both within and outside the Democratic Party, they encountered the contradictions of the New Deal Democratic order head on. This political order may have been a “fragile giant,” but it was one with a beating heart, a strong animating grassroots impulse all its own. The breadth and depth what groups like the National Citizens PAC and the Hollywood Democratic Committee accomplished in a few short years was remarkable. Their work showed what was possible in a Janus-faced period, looking back to the New Deal and World War II and anticipating the progressive politics that would accompany the major shifts in American society toward international political-economic preeminence and toward a suburban, TV-centered lifestyle and landscape.
- American liberalism, New Deal, Democratic Party, progressive politics, organized labor, social democracy, varieties of multiculturalism and multiracialism, the Cold War, globalization, cities, suburbs, Los Angeles, New York, neoliberalism, community organizing, building power
- U.S. History, Urban / Metropolitan History, Political History, Geography, Theories of Change, Public Scholarship, and Civic Engagement
- Policy History Conference, 6/2012
- Urban History Conference, 10/2010
- American Historical Association - Pacific Coast Branch, 8/2008
- Policy History Conference, 5/2008
- Social Science History Association Conference, 11/2007
Ethington, P. J., Levitus, D. P. (2009). Placing American Political Development: Cities, Regions, and Regimes, 1789-2008. (Vol. The City in American Political Development). New York, New York: Routledge.
Levitus, D. P. The Progressive Dilemma: Grassroots Liberals, The Democratic Party and the Search for Political Power Since the 1930s.
Honors and Awards
- New York Public Library Short-Term Fellowship, 2011-2012
- NYU Center for the United States and the Cold War Travel Grant, 2011-2012
- Roosevelt Institute FDR Library Research Travel Grant, 2011-2012
- Hubbard Dissertation Research and Writing Summer Fellowship, 2010-2011
- ICW Summer Travel Grant, 2010-2011
- Truman Presidential Library Foundation Research Travel Grant, 2010-2011
- John Randolph and Dora Haynes Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship, 2009-2010
Service to the Profession
- Co-Coordinator, L.A. History & Metro Studies Group, The Huntington Library, 2011-2012